After three years and three attempts, the Coalition Government succeeded in taking away the civil rights of a million workers by passing the ABCC bill.

It wasn’t easy for them. In order to build support for these laws – widely condemned and criticised by human rights organisations, lawyers, journalists and the International Labour Organisation – the Coalition was required to ramp up a campaign of lies and misinformation and conduct a heavily promoted Royal Commission that cost taxpayers almost $80 million.

All of these endeavours (including the secret sealed report of the Royal Commission) failed to convince cross bench senators of the need for the ABCC – despite the Coalition calling a double dissolution that resulted in the unseating of many of those non-compliant senators.

Why was the Coalition Government so hell bent on passing these laws? Why did they spend three years painting a picture of an industry rife with criminality and thuggery that is at odds with reality and has been disabused by police and when they knew perfectly well that the ABCC has nothing to do with tackling crime? Why did they continually make false claims about productivity gains and reducing the cost of building schools and hospitals if the ABCC was reinstated?

To answer honestly, you have to look at who benefits from laws that treat construction workers like second-class citizens and take away rights that have been the cornerstone of industrial democracy in Australia for over 150 years.

These laws not only take away rights, they endanger safety and conditions for ordinary workers in the industry and take away important protections. We know this because we’ve been here before and that’s what happened.

The reality of the ABCC is that it:

  • removes the right to silence for construction workers
  • destroys job security as it bans workers, unions and employers agreeing to limit casualisation
  • restricts workers, unions and employers from promoting the employment of apprentices
  • bans unions and employers from agreeing to safe hours of work or any limitation at all on excessive overtime
  • prohibits employees seeking the assistance of their union on safety issues
  • imposes draconian financial penalties on workers of up to $36,000 for contraventions, including if they stop work because of a safety concern that is later found to be sufficiently serious.

Despite the moaning from conservative commentators, most of the amendments that are supposed to be favourable to workers will have little effect. Chief among them is the Security of Payments section. Having made a lot of noise on this issue, Senator Nick Xenophon settled for a committee, rather than insisting on concrete measures to protect sub-contractors and workers from predatory behaviour by head contractors. The government and the Master Builders Association (MBA) will continue to try and bury any meaningful reform in this area.

The much discussed two-year moratorium on the Code for existing EBAs was not the position of the CFMEU, but a deal offered to Malcolm Turnbull by Senator Derryn Hinch and promoted by the Australian Industry Group. Again, the commentary by some columnists on this issue was completely off the mark.

The reality is that many contractors were horrified by the MBA’s support for the retrospective application of the Code. The MBA put the interests of the Liberal Party ahead of their members, which has resulted in a huge backlash among MBA members.

The one positive to come out of the negotiations was the amendment on temporary work visas moved by Senator Doug Cameron and reluctantly accepted by the government. It goes well beyond the Immigration Act and, if enforced, will result in more job opportunities for Australian citizens and residents.

It’s easy to see that those who win from the ABCC are the property developers and big multinationals. They will pocket even bigger profits at the expense of the health and well-being of working people.

In every state and federal jurisdiction, the developers have been major financial supporters of the Liberal Party. Their donations to the party are often shrouded in secrecy, deliberately channelled through the labyrinth of the hodgepodge of laws and regimes throughout the Commonwealth that purport to govern donations.

There are a number of instances in WA, Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales where major donors to the Liberal Party have been the direct beneficiaries of government decision making. It’s hard to see the zealotry displayed by the Coalition Government in passing the ABCC as anything other than payback to the rich developers who have donated handsomely to the Liberal Party.

It is important for all of us to give consideration to these issues and to ask ourselves if we are content to allow a government to diminish the quality of life of so many people simply to curry favour with their property developer donors.

The CFMEU fought very hard to stop these laws. It fought hard to secure protections for workers that are enshrined in international conventions to which Australia is a signatory. It fought hard to fend off attacks on the civil liberties of the people who build our cities, towns and infrastructure. It fought hard to defend the rights of working people to job security, decent hours of work and safe conditions.

And the CFMEU is not going to stop.

It will continue to fight for an end to bad and discriminatory laws that fail to address the real issues in the industry, but instead favour the interests of big property developers and multinational companies.

All over the world, people are witnessing a decline in their standard of living. There are regular media reports on the lack of work-life balance, the effects of working more hours for less pay, the rising stress associated with a lack of job security – all caused by the pursuit of unfettered profits.

John Falzon, the CEO of St Vincent de Paul said in a recent article, that inequality is not ‘an accident or an economic inevitability. It’s a political choice.’

The ABCC is one such political choice.

However, for as long as there are unions like the CFMEU, they will not give up fighting for the fair go and the right for working people to live with dignity and decency.

  • I see Dave is still living in the dark ages with the rest of his union mates. This article is so unbalanced and basically is like a rallying document to get his "comrades" to throw more of their money away supporting the lifestyles of union organisers and organisations that deliver no value.

    • Barry, the catch-words 'dark ages' applies equally to the dire lack of safety before the advent of unionism. It is true that many Australians hate unions; but there are also many Australians who think safety is more important than profits. Dark Ages works both ways as does the word reasonable.

  • This has been an exhausting distraction within the construction industry and of virtually no interest to the community outside the industry. If the government were serious about improving productivity and fairness within the industry it would radically change current procurement methods which continue to constrain opportunities and disadvantage smaller and regional businesses.
    Tender and selection processes remain seriously biased towards major influential participants where selection processes focus on risk shedding to the bottom of the food chain with no recourse. Similarly sub-contractors and professional consultants find no protection in the Security of Payments Act where even government officials are unsubtle in their unwillingness to address unfair practices.
    Beating up the Unions is such a "red under the bed" mentality that it is embarrassing and a conversation killer in any constructive discourse about improving innovation, productivity and efficiency. It maintains a perception that the industry is still "concrete, six inch nails and a sledge hammer" when in fact the rate of change driven by technology and progressive organisations are rendering this Federal government achievements irrelevant if not counter-productive.

  • Dave, not many people will come out and publicly challenge what you have to say here, and I am not sure of its purpose other than to mollify your inner circle that you intend to carry the torch into more confrontation. Well that's all good. The tragedy is that no-one is turning their minds to the future of construction work and how we will develop the next generation of modern construction workers. I recall that you reminded me that was not my problem you had it sorted. Well all we see so far is the continuation of a battle between capital and labour that started in a school yard so long ago no-one can remember who started it. The bottom line is that unless the construction industry as a whole adopts the ethos of 'Better Construction for Less' the you will see fewer jobs as the work will dry up. Construction costs are at least 20 percent too high in Australia. That does not mean screwing the workforce – it means working smarter, safer, safer, less wastefully and effectively. And as we discussed, this will require as much productivity by consultants/contractors a before work starts on site as it will once work commences on site. Just so you know, this will need measurement to make sure that any productivity claims are measured and benchmarked. Both Pre-Construction Effectiveness and Construction Delivery Effectiveness. I believe one of these measures must be an 80% improvement in Construction LTI's within 5 years. This will not happen if the CFMEU wants to conduct its future the same way it always has. To do that expecting a different result will not work. If the CFMEU and Constructors think they can continue passing on unproductive costs to clients then they are mistaken. Until the CFMEU gets this we need the ABCC.

    • Mr Chandler we have Australian construction companies currently being charged with bribery, price fixing and collusion.. A senate inquiry has identified harsh, oppressive, criminal and unconscionable behavior by constructors. We have the use of insolvency to defraud, non-payment assisted by a flawed adjudication system, unfair contracts being forced upon participants and respect for peoples lives and safety non existent.

      We have C I clients who require construction under unreasonable timelines and conditions and who have completely divested themselves of any risk and responsibility . That responsibility is all passed on to those who actually do the work. Skilled workers and industry small business who employ them are turning away from a dishonest industry.. The beneficiaries and drivers of unfair legislation are developers.and large construction companies.

      We have " peak industry groups" and regulators joined at the hip, building surveyors and insolvency professionals conflicted by being appointed by company directors and home warranty insurance not worth a cracker , It should all start with federal regulation of the industry starting with the construction contract. Until this occurs we will not see the construction industry you describe. Not withstanding any problems associated with the CFMEU the issue is the ABCC Bill was purchased by developers and large constructors and that should be of concern to all Australians.

  • hahaha what an article, sweeping statements with no reference to supporting material.

  • " Success in the construction industry is measured by your ability to steal other people's money" I agree that the Security of Payment element of the ABCC bill has been rendered useless by deferring to a committee that will be influenced by MBA and others who have a pre-determined objection to SOP.

  • What is the difference between major donors to the Libetal Party being " direct beneficiaries " of government decision making and what Eddie Obied has been sent to jail for?
    The alleged threats and political interference in a 1996 QLD commission of inquiry into SOP, the subsequent shelving of recommendations and the amendments to the Payments Act in QLD in 2014 appears to be a " gold medal " example of beneficiaries of legislation . The 2014 amendments to the Act were a three pronged attack on the payment rights of 85pc of the QLD industry.
    The wrongful withholding of money and the use of pre-planned insolvency to defraud billions from small business is a cause for national shame .

    There is not one corner of this industry that is not corrupt. The pious and hypocritical comments from LP Pollies following Obeid's jailing is breathtaking. Nobody can argue with his sentence but he should have some company where he is going. To use $80m of tax payers funds for political expediency indicates an alarming misuse of political power and damages our democracy as does the current trend of "legislation by donation.

    When will we see $80m spent on investigating " peak industry associations " who have been improperly influencing legislation for years. There have been approximately 24,000 C I insolvencies since 2000 as a result of having payment legislation improperly influenced to benefit developers and big builders.

  • I doubt many are surprised when the pendulum swings from the extremes. Perhaps this is the opportunity for building owners and users to finally realise some benefits from reduced delays and costs. The CFMEU could be an effective advocate, but chooses not to by adopting a decades old cartoon stereotype. Like the boy who cried wolf, any genuine issues the union may have about safety are more likely lost in a false cloud of confusion. I wonder if it's just a folly wasting members' funds until a BLF type implosion or if this particular union lacks the strategic ability to maintain relevance among all the players with a vested interest in safe and competitive progress.

  • I agree that inequality is definitely no accident! Most disturbingly, the ABCC Bill is just the most recent illustration of 'political choice' based on economic preferences to advantage the monetary might of big business – in this case developers and large companies. The corollary is that the 'rights' of workers, already so diminished, will now be further weakened to the point of non-existence. As you note Dave, despite Australia being a signatory to so many conventions, including our own ‘Charters of Human Rights’! Workers’ supposed 'Human Rights' wiped out!
    In building and construction it matters not whether we talk about the 'rights' of workers to fair pay, a safe workplace and compensation for injury and disease, or whether we consider the 'rights' of consumers to get what they pay for, or the 'rights' of small business contractors to be paid, in building and construction these 'rights' have been ‘legally’ erased. As you correctly point out, there is a direct correlation between those who pay to have access to direct the 'political', i.e. public policy – and the rest of us, who make up the majority of the populace. Thus we who cannot donate and cannot 'influence have been consigned to positions of powerlessness! The unfettered excesses of market forces not just permitted by Government, but bizarrely endorsed for the good of the 'economy' and enshrined as 'law'. The upshot is that our legal 'rights' – consumers' rights, workers’ rights or small business’ rights – all entirely eliminated! The 'rule of law' has effectively been approved as the 'rule of big business' – but at very great cost to the key stakeholders who fund, do the work and supply the labour. These ‘rules’ have created a disaster on a massive scale.